Marina Abramović: The Artist Is Present, directed by Matthew Akers and Jeff Dupre, is both a potted biography of the purported “grandmother of performance art” as well as a document of her 2010 performance, also titled ‘The Artist Is Present’, in which she sat silent and stationary in one room of her historic retrospective at New York’s Museum of Modern Art for some 736 hours over the course of the show’s two and a half months, while visitors lined up to take the seat opposite her for as long as they liked. It is a piece which will no doubt come to be seen as the defining pinnacle of her career, if not in fact a defining piece of an entire era of art stretching back into at least the late 19th century. In this latter respect it feels fitting that the first thing which came to mind concerning the work, if only initially in terms of the associations called forth by the profile of Abramović’s pose, was the 1871 oil painting Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1, more widely known as Whistler’s Mother.
Fitting because James McNeil Whistler figures prominently in Sinéad Murphy’s recent book The Art Kettle, in which she argues the institution of contemporary art to be an increasingly insidious form of social control – “what Foucault would call a discipline” – which functions by ensuring oppositional energies are ineffectively spent in a space now severed from society. For Murphy, Whistler forms one foundational half, along with his contemporaneous critic John Ruskin, of the tight loop that artistic discourse would endlessly turn in over the coming century; an only ostensibly antagonistic pistoning between the hermetic aestheticism of the former, and the latter’s religiously informed belief in beauty’s ability to better the lot of public morals (positions first staked out in Whistler’s famous libel case against Ruskin). One of The Art Kettle’s central claims therefore is that art is still stuck between these two equally stifling configurations: an elitism concerned exclusively with the “artistic interests” of artists and academics on the one hand – historically centred on constant ripostes of “It’s not art”/ “It is art” – and on the other a shallow sentimentalism in which works are little more than catalysts allowing a notional public to uncritically experience the kind of feelings once fostered by religion; essentially stuck then between “scorning the expectations of a sentimentalized many” and “scorning the irrelevance of an intellectualized few.”
The ‘Artist Is Present’ performance is peculiarly suspended across Whistler/Ruskin, being simultaneously engaged with both these legacies, without, however, actually taking leave of the space they have long demarcated, but only instead descending further into its dead, desiccated centre, thereby validating better than anything Murphy’s trivialisation of the apparent contrast between the two positions (better even, in many respects, than her own example of Susan Philipsz’s Turner prize winning sound installation Lowlands Away). While Proust writes that “very far from being a dilettante or an aesthete, Ruskin was the precise opposite, one of those Carlyle-like men warned by their genius of the vanity of all pleasure and at the same time of the presence close beside them of a timeless reality, intuitively perceived by their inspiration,” Murphy convincingly points out how what this actually leads to is hardly far from Whistler’s own disinterested art for art’s sake, for “it has been much longer than they think since art was ‘about’ something; before it was about nothing but itself, it was about nothing but the morally elevating effect of occasions that are about nothing.”
We see both sides here. On the one hand – Whistler’s to be precise – we hear, in an opening interview captured by the film crew, Abramović tellingly talk of how the one question she hasn’t been asked in some ten years now is also the one she often wishes would return: the question of why is it art? It seems her problem, which one can infer from a short clip shown later in the film of two uncomprehending Fox News anchors deriding her with pointed disgust as “some Yugoslav provocateur,” is that the only people left who don’t automatically assent that this is all obviously, by definition-because-it’s-in-a-gallery-and-is-getting-media-attention Art are precisely such stalwart right-wingers, existing so far outside(/behind) the art world and its activity that such complaints as they still make are hardly heard there anymore. Nevertheless, “artistic interests” are still certainly central to the performance, regardless of whether or not the discourse (or at least what we see couched as such in the film) still focuses so fervently on them. The performance overtly works as a kind of ultimate exercise in form, purifying and finalising a gesture that has always been implicit in performance art, whereby the idea of art as the singular being of the artist as expressed in the style of their manipulation of some or other medium is reduced, in a kind of reducto ad absurdum, to nothing more than, literally, the artist, their personage, career, and the space of their performance, the conceit running something like: if the artist now is the medium, mediation is therefore cut to a minimum – and of course mediation = bad (cf. Kevin Robins’ essay ‘Against Virtual Community: For a politics of distance’ for an invigorating decimation of this powerful distaste which we have for the interference of distance in life and the distorting effects of mediation on our intended meanings – as though communication could ever be anything but mediation – something shown even by Marina when she has the table separating her from the sitter removed from the performance after a while so as to make it all even more open and immediate and so on).
On the other hand – Ruskin’s now – an awful lot of the film’s latter half is taken up with close-ups of those sat with Abramović, set to an airy, uninspiring score forcing on us as firmly as it can the fact that, yes, everyone is indeed very moved by this experience. Many cry, and many also make reference to the emotional power of Marina’s maternal bearing (another reason perhaps for thinking of Whistler’s Mother), which only serves to bring further to the fore the troubling devotional aspects I felt permeating the entire affair. Some of the earliest Christian art consisted of cloistered, enclosed spaces where one would sit alone in prolonged contemplation of a painting of the Madonna, eyes exaggerated in abstraction so as to illicit the greatest impression of a moving grace channelled through the icon. The difference here is that the performance has nothing private about it, with the square-where-the-art-happens, due to the trail of media and onlookers and others awaiting their turn snaking round its edges, often resembling an actual police kettle, especially given the security personnel, which is one area where this otherwise unimpressive documentary occasionally redeems itself.
Not hugely though, for what I take to be the most important scenes in the film, of guards gently but insistently manhandling out of the gallery certain sitters who don’t comply, often without even realising, with the strict rules concerning their conduct while sat opposite Marina, rules against even ‘pulling faces’ for instance, these scenes are slipped into the stream of the documentary, along with everything else, without comment or even any particular emphasis, as though they were simply some of the dramatic antics which one is to expect from the special space created by the art world. One man, for instance, attempts to affix a framed mirror of some sort to his face as though it were a mask once he is sat opposite Marina, before being thrown out. More distressing, a young woman, one of the last few people queuing for their time with the artist at the end of the show’s run, calmly pulls off her dress and tries to take the seat naked, only to be immediately escorted out by around five guards, amid cries of protest from the spectators. When interviewed, it becomes clear she is likely a huge fan of Abramović’s, stating she didn’t realise what she did would be against the rules – having understandably assumed that the audience is part of the artwork and therefore might posses some sliver of autonomy within it – and that she only “wanted to be as vulnerable in front of Marina as she makes herself to everyone else.” She is somewhat distraught, unsure if she will now get her chance to sit with her, and the documentary simply moves on. She is not mentioned again, and it is implied she is not allowed back into the performance room to see Abramović, who in every one of these instances simply looks down and closes her eyes in preparation for the next in line as soon as the guards make their move to eject anyone, as though she were not at all complicit.
At one point also Marina’s personal aide is shown in conversation with someone, stating with casual disdain how “there have of course been a few weirdos” in reference to those expelled. I was genuinely confused as to what is even meant to differentiate Abramović herself from such supposed “weirdos” except her privileged position as ‘the artist’ (which is to say, ‘the artist with the backing of a big institution’). The hierarchy of artist/institution over audience not only isn’t even challenged here, but is in fact clearly strengthened in a worrying direction: “the idea of a public being ‘moved’… suggests the kind of herding to which we might strenuously object if it were done less beautifully, were it dressed, let’s say, in riot gear and a hi-vi jacket and held a baton that it was not afraid to apply” –Murphy’s statement taking on an almost literal quality in relation to ‘The Artist Is Present’. It is this aspect of the exhibition that appeared to me so genuinely nauseating, not at all the now relatively tame pieces performed by understudies in other rooms of the MoMA which involved nudity and violence and as a result so riled Fox News. The extent to which Abramović and performance art have been enfolded into the art market’s ‘mainstream’, something Marina herself says she greatly desires now that she is over 60 years old and long-tired of always being ‘alternative’, is illustrated by the fact that even something like the Mona Lisa is patently less conservative than ‘The Artist Is Present’. Before the former one may at least alter one’s facial expression to anything other than an awestruck sob without being set upon by several security personnel for disrupting the integrity of the artwork’s aura. This is all by far the best illustration yet of Evan Calder Williams’ statement that “the most revolutionary attitude to most art, and to the spaces that crowd around them like so many post-austerity curvy Fortresses of Solitude, might be to say: it is damn pretty, but do we really need all the guards?”
There is however an angle from which those security personnel, if we take Abramović and the space of the performance to be themselves the medium, essentially act as easel, paint and brush, the tools by which the artist shapes and controls the material so as to achieve their desired effect on the audience. We might then ask what exactly the desired effect is. This is revealed in a sequence showing Abramović preparing the aforementioned understudies to recreate past performances of hers throughout the gallery. She focuses on the fact that the artist is to be present. Abramović’s apparent aim in the performance was to set people in a situation where they could slowly sink into an appreciation of the present, of time in its pure form, moment by moment, experiencing only existence itself as it passes, with the artist herself as the iconic focal point for this meditation. Hence the injunction forbidding anything that might mitigate against the atmosphere and composure supposedly required to generate such an experience, like the laughter I suspect would have been my own spontaneous reaction.
Such concern with the experience of the immediate has a long history. After all, it would be possible to form a relatively comprehensive account of the 20th century avant gardes by simply tracing the reiterations of precisely this question of temporality throughout the work of the period. It was central to literary modernism for instance. Think of Ezra Pound, who ended up imploring us to “let the wind speak” and thereby find the only paradise we will ever likely know in a perception so sharpened as to cut through to the actuality of the present. Much more recently, there is David Foster Wallace, whose unfinished novel The Pale King, set in an I.R.S. processing centre, was to be an elaboration of the uses of extreme boredom in invoking the same kind of immanence Abramović seeks: “Bliss—a-second-by-second joy and gratitude at the gift of being alive, conscious – lies on the other side of crushing, crushing boredom. Pay close attention to the most tedious thing you can find (Tax Returns, Televised Golf) and, in waves, a boredom like you’ve never known will wash over you and just about kill you. Ride these out, and it’s like stepping from black and white into color. Like water after days in the desert. Instant bliss in every atom.” There are also the cinematic avant gardes of the ‘60s and ‘70s, decades during which a number of film-makers frequently focused on structuring experiences of pure duration through various material experiments with the constituents of the medium.
Even in Dante’s Divine Comedy, one of the more severe punishments meted out to those in Inferno is an inability to access the present. Having knowledge only of the future, their perception will cease entirely after the final judgement when all enter into the moment of eternal presence before God: “So you can understand how our awareness / will die completely at the moment when / the portal of the future has been shut.”
Regardless of its originality, Abramović’s raising again the question of the present is at least rather topical. Autonomist theoretician and activist Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi’s recent book After the Future calls for a contestation of capitalism’s inability, like Dante’s damned, to see anything other than the future, specifically a future predicated on the necessity of indefinite and ludicrously destructive economic growth. Along similar lines, April’s edition of the New Left Review featured a polemic against the current left by art historian and past Situationist T. J. Clark in his ‘For a Left with No Future.’ Against the left’s deferred messianism, he affirms long derided reformism as the only practical course of revolutionary action now available, a slow rigorous process of incremental victories rooted firmly in the present, attended by the outlook, not unlike Bifo’s, that utopia can only be lived there, a mode of being in the world which must supplant the kind that predominates under current conditions, in which “individuality” is still “held together by a fiction of full existence to come.” The same issue also features an engaged analysis from Susan Watkins, entitled ‘Presentism? A reply to T. J. Clark’, and in which she counters that “Ideologically… and this is what makes Clark’s iconoclastic stance puzzling – ‘no future’ would already appear to be established as the postmodern order of the day: a changeless now, from horizon to horizon, and a presentist politics reduced to the mindless repetition of the words, ‘Yes, we can’.” The poverty an eternal present as transformative experience can take on if too “oblivious to historical developments taking place outside” would perhaps be irrelevant in relation to both the performance and the documentary were it not that, in opting for coercion rather than openness in the facilitation of such an experience, rather ugly connections necessarily arise with the increasingly specialised suppression of protest currently occurring throughout the world.
Ultimately though, my objection to ‘The Artist Is Present’ lies in the way it continues in the direction of a lamentable interpretation of what it would mean to try and bring art into closer contact with life. Late in the film, outside MoMA, another young woman is interviewed, and she speaks of her moments with Marina, of how “I’m really inspired now to start making my own performance art, and” looking around her “I feel like even just sitting here is a piece.” What seems to have been engendered then, in this case at least, is arguably the reverse of the intended attenuation to a lived present. Instead, only more fruitless bull about how “hey, anything can be art!” Sure it can be, if you want to go around saying it’s so, but you have to ask, what does that even do anymore? When the Situationist International called for a collapse of art into everyday life, this was not what they meant. The confusion about their theories, about what ‘the construction of situations’ would even constitute stems from failing to see that what they always intended (and very nearly achieved in the events of May ‘68) was nothing more than the construction of a total revolution. The collapse of art into life meant for them a radical transformation of society such that the strictures capitalism keeps fast to life are cut loose, allowing art’s intensity to become freely embodied, rather than reified in the representations of the culture industry, which only ultimately reflect the absence of said intensity from a world where the potentials of the lived present are continually foreclosed in favour of maintaining the health of an abstracted, inhuman economy. To simply blur the boundaries between art and life can be occasionally instructive, occasionally catastrophic; what it never seems to achieve is the improvement of either.
Murphy’s main gripe throughout The Art Kettle is that after Whistler/Ruskin, craft has been increasingly excised from art, and that furthermore, the notion that it might be in any way useful has been lost amid desperate attempts to keep art as a zone of freedom where dominant means/ends rationality is barred entry. One needn’t agree with Murphy entirely, and I admit I don’t on numerous points, to still find her propositions vitally thought-provoking at this juncture, particularly so her brilliant critique of Nicolas Bourriaud’s popular ‘relational aesthetics’, again of great relevance to something like ‘The Artist Is Present’. What I would highlight as the major blind spot of the book, remaining unexplored alongside the discussion of things like wallpaper and fashion, is that art form which from its birth at the dawn of the 20th century until the present day has, due to its technical preconditions, been impossible to disconnect from craft, and what’s more has, in at least one strain, even maintained a connection with the historical, political, social – in short, with an outside ‘real’ – and in its relationship with these, proven itself to be eminently useful without having had to sacrifice its aesthetic autonomy at the same time, an autonomy which the avant gardists of this particular medium have consistently used to prevent any confusion between their art and the life they bring into question.
The art is of course cinema, the strain documentary. It’s just a shame this particular instance is so mediocre an example of its possibilities.